Sunday, January 19, 2014

Mystery Guests on the Seder Plate: Charoset, Lettuce and Egg

Mystery Guests on the Seder Plate: Charoset, Lettuce and Egg

The complex ritual of the Seder provides many opportunities for occult interpretations (see my earlier entry, The Ritual Mysticism and Magic of Passover ). Rabban Gamliel, for example, requires at a minimum that we explain the symbolism of three objects at the seder: The Pesach (shankbone) Matzah (unleavened bread) and Maror (bitter herb). But there are many more objects and gestures that get little or no explicit explanation. These are the "objects that don't know how to explain themselves."

For example - we always say the charoset (the fruit and nut compote) represents the mortar with which our ancestors set the bricks during their slavery. Yet this interpretation feels a little contrived. Why would the mortar binding us to misery be sweet? Art Waskow finally offered a drash on charoset that makes perfect sense to me. Waskow posits that the ingredients are drawn directly from foods mentioned in the Song of Songs - apples, wine, nuts, and spices. Since the early mystics understand the S of S to be God's inner thoughts at the time of Exodus, this garden of metaphors signifies the divine passion ("Your kisses are sweeter than wine") for the people Israel. The charoset then is not a reminder of concrete, but a concrete reminder of God's love for us at the time of Pesach. I think this insight is the right one and reaches back to the true roots of this minhag (custom).

Then there is the lettuce (hazeret). People are forever puzzled as to why there needs to be a second herb on the seder plate besides the horseradish. While a Mishna on the seder mentions hazeret as well as maror, many treated the terms as synonymous. Early seder plates only had five spots, while virtually all made today have six to accommodate this second herb. The lettuce has its roots in Sefardic mysticism, which insists on this added component. Why? In order to better represent the sefirot, the mystical divine structure. By having the lettuce as well as the horseradish, there are then ten components (three matzot, zaroa, carpas, maror, beitzah, charoset, hazeret and the seder plate) to the seder that parallel the ten sefirotic elements (Keter, Chokhmah, Binah, Gevurah, Hesed, Tiferet, Hod, Netzach, Yesod, and Malchut).

Finally, there is the roasted egg. Forget the "symbol of spring" or "cycle of the year" explanation. Even the "It symbolizes the birth of a nation" interpretation is a latecomer, though it makes me smile. The actual origin is not really esoteric. It's there to remind us of (that's why it's roasted) but not replace (that's why it's an egg, not a lamb) the Chagigah (festival) offering made in the Temple at Pesach. Don't confuse that offering with the Pesach lamb once eaten as part of the seder - in ancient times lambs were offered both at home and in the Temple.

But the egg in particular seems to attract funky and novel interpretations. A new drash I've heard is on the widespread Ashkenazi custom of starting the Pesach dinner by dipping a boiled egg in salt water and eating it. Earlier explanations I have heard is that it meant to remind us of Sodom, for the city was supposedly destroyed in the month of Nisan (yeah, I don't quite get it either). Then this year someone assured me it was a "Kabbalistic ritual" in commemoration of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds. While we started out walking on dry land, as the Torah and Midrash says, according to this new explanation, the sea started to rise again until the Israelites had their male genitalia dipping in the salty waters.

I had to have that one explained to me twice. The person was quite insistent that this was the true meaning of the ritual. My first reaction was, "...and this is supposed to teach us -- what?" The question I should have asked was, "Since it's an egg, isn't it commemorating how the salty waters touched the genitalia of ourfemale ancestors?" But there you have it - yet another Jewish ritual that seemingly neglects the female experience.*

Leviathan II: Demon of the Sea, Messianic Meal


Leviathan II: Demon of the Sea, Messianic Meal

[Illustration: Serpentine sea creature from Die Bucher der Bibel,by E.M. Lilien]

We have already gotten a sense of Leviathan in Biblical myth, but now the great sea dragon deserves a second look for how the myth is further developed in Talmud. A generally reliable principle in the rabbinic reading of the Bible is that the Sages usually begin by amplifying and elaborating upon what is already found in the Bible. Like a pearl forming around a grain of sand, the Sages build upon what is already there adding layers of teachings. Some times, however, the Sages seize upon a seemingly incidental aspect of a Biblical tradition to elevate and forefront it in remarkable ways. Thus we find this elaborate and fascinating passage in Baba Batra which uses multiple Biblical citations to construct its narrative of the final end of death, chaos, entropy and evil (personified by Leviathan) in the World-to-Come:

Rav Judah said in the name of Rav: All that the Blessed Holy One created [in all] his world is male and female. Likewise, Leviathan the slant serpent and Leviathan the torturous serpent he created male and female; and had they mated with one another they would have destroyed the whole world. What [then] did the Blessed Holy One do? He castrated the male and killed the female preserving it in salt for the righteous in the World to Come; for it is written: “And he will slay the dragon that is in the sea.” And also Behemoth on a thousand hills was created male and female, and had they mated with one another they would have destroyed the whole world. What did the Blessed Holy One, do? He castrated the male and cooled the female and preserved it for the righteous for the world to come; for it is written: "See now his strength is in his loins" — this refers to the male; "and his force is in the stays of his body," — this refers to the female. There also, [in the case of Leviathan], he should have castrated the male and cooled the female [why then did he kill the female]?... [Because a] female [fish] preserved in salt is tastier…Then here also [in the case of Behemoth] he should have preserved the female in salt? — Salted fish is palatable, salted flesh is not.
This is one of several mythic accounts of how God will eventually subdue moral and human chaos in the End of Days. To convey this in mythic terms, Rabbinic tradition identifies three personified (zooified?) chaos beasts. Behemoth is Leviathan's land-based counterpart. Ziz, the avian monster, appears a number of times in legends, but is the least prominent of the "Big Three."

First, the Sages read the Biblical accounts in such a way that they detect two Behemoth - the Hebrew word itself is plural - being described. And since Isaiah uses two titles for Leviathan - "slant serpent" and "torturous serpent" - Rav Judah is reading this to mean there are actually two monsters. The bi-sexuality of the creatures reflects the worldview of the Sages, who see the universe as both sentient and permeated with male and female forces (See the earlier entries, "The Sacred Feminine I and II").

In keeping with the notion that unifying males and female forces has cosmic consequences, once coupled these chaos monsters would undo creation and return it to primordial darkness (sort of like what almost happened when Zuul the Gatekeeper and Vinz Clortho the Keymaster got together in "Ghostbusters," only without the Staypuff Marshmellow Man - what, you think Dan Ackroyd was making up all that Mesopotamian stuff out of thin air?). Therefore God ensures the survival of our world by keeping these forces apart. But there is a purpose in God's decision not to totally purge the chaotic and evil from creation (See the entry "A Necessary Evil").

And most surprising of all, when the final rectification comes, we will participate in perfecting the work of creation by literally "consuming" the chaos, both utterly dominating but also assimilating it into ourselves in a "nutritious" (rather than harmful) manner. This idea that in Messianic times we will banquet upon the Beast is derived from an enigmatic verse, Ps. 74:14, " was You who crushed the head of Leviathan, who made him food for the people of the desert." Baba Batra continues:

When R. Dimi came he said in the name of R. Johanan: When Leviathan is hungry he emits [fiery] breath from his mouth and causes all the waters of the deep to boil; for it is said: "He makes the deep to boil like a pot." And if he were not to put his head into the Garden of Eden, no creature could stand his [foul] odor [Other legends explain that Eden has an insanely pleasant smell that can endure on things for generations; here it is used as a kind of cosmic deodorant]; for it is said: "He makes the sea like a spiced broth." When he is thirsty he makes numerous furrows in the sea; for it is said: "He makes a path to shine after him."...Rabbah said in the name of R. Johanan: The Blessed Holy One will in time to come make a banquet for the righteous from the flesh of Leviathan; for it is said: "Companions will make a banquet of it…." Companions must mean scholars, for it is said: "You that dwell in the gardens, the companions hearken for your voice; cause me to hear it…." Rabbah in the name of R. Johanan further stated: The Blessed Holy One will in time to come make a tabernacle for the righteous from the skin of Leviathan; for it is said: "Can you fill tabernacles with his skin?" If a man is worthy, a tabernacle is made for him [in the World-to-Come]; if he is not worthy [of this] a [mere] covering is made for him, for it is said: And his head with a fish covering. If a man is [sufficiently] worthy a covering is made for him; if he is not worthy [even of this], a necklace is made for him, for it is said: "And necklaces about your neck." If he is worthy [of it] a necklace is made for him; if he is not worthy [even of this] an amulet is made for him; as it is said: "And you will bind him for your maidens." [the meaning of the Hebrew word for an amulet is "binder"] The rest [of the Leviathan hide] will be spread by the Blessed Holy One upon the walls of Jerusalem, and its splendor will shine from one end of the world to the other; as it is said: "And nations shall walk at your light, and kings at the brightness of your rising."
Baba Batra 74b – translation based on the Soncino Talmud.

Notice that in the end nothing is wasted and nothing is lost, either from us nor from what afflicts us. While not everyone is equal in merit, everyone gets a "portion" of the World to Come. And as for Leviathan, well, what once threatened to destroy us will in time sustain us; what once menaced the universe will ultimately serve to illuminate it.
Learn more in The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism.


Leviathan I: The Cosmic Sea Dragon of the Bible


Leviathan I: The Cosmic Sea Dragon of the Bible

Among the scattered numinous creatures mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures (Angels, lilot, satyrs), few have captured the imagination more than the great monster, Leviathan (Leviyatan).In Job, God reminds the long-suffering, angry Job of his humble place in the cosmos with an extended meditation on the mighty creature, itself a subordinate creation of God: 

Can you draw out Leviathan by a fishhook? Can you press down his tongue by a rope? Can you put a ring through his nose, or pierce his jaw with a barb?....His strong scales are his pride, shut up as with a tight seal. One is so near to another that no air can come between them. They are joined one to another; they clasp each other and cannot be separated. His sneezes flash forth light, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the morning. Out of his mouth go burning torches; sparks of fire leap forth. Out of his nostrils smoke goes forth as from a boiling pot and burning rushes.His breath kindles coals, and a flame goes forth from his mouth. In his neck lodges strength, and dismay leaps before him. The folds of his flesh are joined together, firm on him and immovable.His heart is as hard as a stone, even as hard as a lower millstone. When he raises himself up, the mighty fear; because of the crashing they are bewildered. The sword that reaches him cannot avail, nor the spear, the dart or the javelin. He regards iron as straw, bronze as rotten wood. The arrow cannot make him flee; slingstones are turned into stubble for him. Clubs are regarded as stubble; he laughs at the rattling of the javelin. His underparts are like sharp potsherds; he spreads out like a threshing sledge on the mire. He makes the depths boil like a pot; he makes the sea like a jar of ointment. Behind him he makes a wake to shine; one would think the deep to be gray-haired. Nothing on earth is like him, one made without fear. He looks on everything that is high; he is king over all the sons of pride. ( Job 40: 25-26; 41:15-32).
One actually gets a pretty clear imagine of Leviathan: some kind of fire-breathing, sea going creature, part dragon (Out of his mouth go burning torches; sparks of fire leap forth. Out of his nostrils smoke goes forth as from a boiling pot and burning rushes. His breath kindles coals, and a flame goes forth from his mouth) and part halibut (he spreads out like a threshing sledge on the mire). Most importantly, he seems truly majestic (His sneezes flash forth light, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the morning...He makes the depths boil like a pot).
Why would God make such a creature? In fact, the Hebrew Leviathan (or Rahav - there seems to be two names for this creature) may be a semi-tamed version of the terrible chaos monster mentioned in surrounding pagan mythologies - Lotan, Prince Sea, or Tiamat. This dragon personifies chaos, disorder, and entropy. In most accounts, the gods must slay this primordial monster in order for cosmos, orderly existence, to become possible.
The Bible reworks this myth in monotheistic terms. God contains chaos within this creature, subduing it. Chaos is not destroyed, but delimited. When God stops His part in the creative process, He declares the universe to be tov meod, "very good" - but not perfect. The world, according to this Biblical myth, is orderly on many levels, but residual bits of chaos linger, most visibly in the realm of the moral. As Jon Levenson notes in his book on Biblical myth, Creation and the Persistence of Evil, God's mishpat, literally "justice" but with the connotation of "divine plan," is not yet fully realized. We, God's junior partners, His co-creators, have our part to do in establishing mishpat at the societal levelIf we fully embrace this partnership, then God responds reciprocally (as the Zohar puts it, "A quickening below triggers a quickening above") and in time the cumulative result is that God will finally wipe away this last remnant of chaos in creation,

In that day the Lord will punish, With His great, cruel, mighty sword Leviathan the Elusive Serpent-- Leviathan the Twisting Serpent; He will slay the Dragon of the sea.' (Isaiah 27:1)

and existence will be perfected. Rabbinic literature tells us a great deal more about Leviathan, but that will have to wait for a coming post, Leviathan II.

Tsorekha Gevoha: Jewish Theurgy in Kabbalah

Tsorekha Gevoha: Jewish Theurgy in Kabbalah

In my earlier post of the desires of God, I indicated that Jewish mysticism assumes God 'needs' humanity. This goes beyond the theological question of the passiblity of God (whether God is affected at all by human action). The Kabbalists believe God is, in a very real sense, 'dependant' upon us. This overlaps with another aspect of Jewish thought (one that extends well beyond the mystical), the taamei mitzvot, the 'reasons for the commandments.'

[For healing, apply mitzvot here - repeat as necessary. Illustration from Illan Gadol]
The TaNaKH is fickle about explaining the purpose of commandments. Sometimes an explanation of an individual command is offered (why for example, taking bribes is forbidden), sometimes the reason approaches the self-evident (why we shouldn't murder), but often, no explanation for a particular commandment is forthcoming at all (much of the sacrificial system, for example, is mandated without any clear rationale).

The Rabbis attempt to explain the rationale for many of the mitzvot, but again, there is not a lot of effort to offer a systemic theory of the mitzvot, except perhaps this: "Israel is beloved by God, for He surrounded them with mitzvot: tefillin upon their heads and arms, tzitzit upon their garments…This can be compared to a king of flesh and blood who said to his wife: 'Adorn yourself with all your jewelry [I gave you] so that you will be desirable to me” So too the Holy Blessed One says to Israel, “Distinguish yourself with mitzvot so you will be desirable to me.” (Sifrei Deut. 36) In other words, the Rabbis include the mitzvot in their erotic theology: In love God gives us the commandments as ornaments of His love. When Israel wears (performs) them, it enhances God's desire for us.

The rationalists, who generally assume God's impassiblity (God is not subject to human influence) regard the commandments to be entirely for our benefit - they mold us into virtuous people, maintain our social and unique identity, etc. Maimonides is the apotheosis of this approach. Moreover, RaMBaM believes that the rationale for every commandment is discernable. If we can't come up with a logical moral, social, or intellectual purpose for a particular commandment, we simply haven't applied enough brain power to the question. This is the attitude toward the commandments that gives birth to the 'hygiene' theory of kashrut - we separate meat from milk to make better distribution of available proteins, or we don't eat pork, shellfish, etc, because we intuit that these food contain harmful substances.

The early mystics found such rationalizations troubling, because once you figure out how to address the 'rationale" (i.e., cook your pork thoroughly and render it safe), the commandment loses its force. And they were all about keeping the fabric of the commandments a whole cloth. So they made an entirely different argument. No only is God subject to human influence, there is atserokha gevoha - 'a need on high.' The mitzvot don't just help us, they help God. This is baldly stated in the 13th Century mystical treatise Sha'arei Orah, Gates of Light, when Joseph Gilkatilla, the author, asks rhetorically, "Doesn't one see that the lower worlds have power to build or destroy the worlds above?"[1]

This is grabbing the other end of the stick from the radically transcendent and immutable God of much rationalist philosophy. But, rational or not, what this does, religiously, is make the commandments really compelling. It is the cosmic equivalent of Jewish mother's guilt: "So, if you don't do what I ask, it's not like the world's going to come to an end....except it will!" "Go ahead, don't worry about Me, I'm only your Creator!" Thus in Sefer Bahir we read: We learned: There is a single pillar extending from heaven to earth, and its name is Righteous (Tzadik). [This pillar] is named after the righteous. When there are righteous people in the world, then it becomes strong, and when there are not, it becomes weak. It supports the entire world, as it is written, "And Righteousness is the foundation of the world." If it becomes weak, then the world cannot endure. Therefore, even if there is only one righteous person in the world, it is he who supports the world. It is therefore written, "And a righteous one is the foundation of the world." [102] This logic of sustaining and healing God through righteous deeds creates great incentive for zealous, precise, even exuberant observance. On the other hand, it somewhat stifles innovation (change may diminish the potency of the ritual act) and create a certain degree of religious OCD.

1. Gates of Light, Avi Weinstein, trans. (Harper-Collins, 1994), p. 62.

Mystical Ascent: Heavenly Body, Soul, and Mind


Mystical Ascent: Heavenly Body, Soul, and Mind

Judaism has long taught the practice of the mystically projecting oneself into higher realms while still alive.

Moshe Idel identifies three types of ascents described in Jewish texts:somanoda(bodily ascent), psychanodia (soul ascent), andnousanodia (ascent of the intellect).1

Bodily ascent can itself take two diverse forms - the "taking up" of the physical body, as in the case of Elijah, or of the "spiritual body," called the guf ha-dak in Hebrew. On the other hand, the idea of projecting the intellect is a particularly medieval one, based on the Aristotilian notion that the Intellect is an attribute linking the person to the higher spheres.

Both apocalyptic literature and the New Testament (Paul, obliquely describing himself - II Cor. 12:3) make it clear that such ascensions were known of and accepted in Early Judaism. Different versions of these ascents can be found at virtual all periods of Jewish history.

Apocalyptic traditions tend to limit ascents to the mythic past; only Biblical worthies merited such experiences, figures such as Enoch, Abraham, and Moses. There is little or no indication in apocalyptic writings, however, that the experience is accessible to the contemporary reader. By contrast, the Dead Sea Scrolls (Perhaps inspired by the language of Zechariah 3:7) suggest for the first time that mingling with angelic realms is possible for the priestly elite.

Later Hekhalot literature radically “democratizes” (for lack of a better word) the possibility of mystical ascent – any intellectually and spiritually worthy person can now do it, though it is exceedingly dangerous - and offers descriptions of some of the rituals and preparations necessary for such ascents.

The German Pietists preserved and continued these practices. After the 13th Century, this journey was most often characterized as climbing the "rungs" or "degrees" of the sefirot.

Famous post-Biblical practitioners of ascent include Rabbis Akiba and Ishmael, Isaac Luria, the Baal Shem Tov, and Abraham Joshua Heschel of Apt.

As one might discern from above, terminology for the experience of entering divine realms changes over Jewish history, and has been known variously as Nichnas Pardes (Entering Paradise),Yered ha-Merkavah (Descent to Chariot), Yichud (Unificaiton) and Davekut (Cleaving).

Techniques for ascent in Jewish sources include ritual purification, immersion, fasting, study of sacred and mystical texts, sleep deprivation, reciting word mantras (especially divine names), self-isolation, and even self-mortification.

The purposes of heavenly ascension include various forms of unio mystica, sometimes in an ineffable experience, other times by a visionary enthronement before God or angelification, receiving answers to questions, the power over angels, or even gaining inspiration (for composing liturgical songs).